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The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment: ‘Night Stalkers Don’t Quit!’

By: Friedrich Seiltgen

Those in the Special Operations community know the Night Stalkers. Based out of Fort Campbell, KY, with other battalions at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia, and FT. Lewis Washington, the 160th Special Operations Regiment (SOAR), aka “Task Force Brown,” supports Special Operations Forces throughout the world.  This specially trained group has one core mission: “To organize, equip, train, resource, and employ Army special operations aviation forces worldwide.” The 160th's motto "Night Stalkers Don't Quit!" or "NSDQ," is attributed to Capt. Keith Lucas, the first Night Stalker killed in action.

The Night Stalkers were formed after the failed attempt to rescue hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Operation “Eagle Claw” was a catastrophe; eight servicemen killed, military equipment left in the desert for intel gathering, hostages still in the hands of the Iranians, and the U.S. embarrassed for the world to see. In the aftermath, a need for a specialized unit for these operations was needed.

The original Night Stalkers were assembled from the 101st Airborne Battalion aviation units.  The 101st, 158th, 159th, and 229th Aviation Battalions contributed soldiers to the new unit, initially referred to as “Task Force 158.”

Training began for a second attempt at rescuing the Iranian Hostages in early 1981.  The mission was scrubbed, as on January 20, 1981, the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was inaugurated, and Iran released the hostages that same day! Many people believe Iran released the hostages before they suffered the ire of President Reagan. The “joke” at the time was whether Reagan would use a low yield or high yield nuke to strike Iran!

The unit became the 160th Aviation Battalion on October 16, 1981 and saw its first combat in Grenada during operation urgent fury in 1983, and the Night Stalkers have been active in every military operation since!   The regiment was designated the 160th Special Operations Aviation Group (Airborne) in 1986. What we know as the 160th SOAR was officially activated in 1990.

So, You Want to Be A Night Stalker!

As with anything worth doing, becoming a member of the 160th is hard! Enlisted Nightstalker candidates must be qualified in one of the authorized MOS (military operation specialties), open to active duty, have or able to obtain a secret clearance, pass a standard Army physical fitness test, be financially stable, and be disciplined, motivated, and eager to learn! Upon selection, Enlisted, Warrant Officers, and commissioned are assigned to the “Green” platoon.    This six-week assessment and training program teaches candidates intense training in combat methods such as: first responder, combatives, weapons, land navigation, and teamwork.

For Night Stalker Pilots, the qualifications are even harder. They first undergo a weeklong assessment process. At the end of the assessment, if chosen, they will be told what helicopter they will be flying, as they may be used for a different type of chopper. Then they are put through a 6-month long course. Then comes a 4-month long advanced course in their assigned helicopter. Pilots will learn in-flight refueling, nap-of-the-earth flying, and be deck landing qualified, which allows them to operate from ships!

Upon successful completion, they are then given a check ride that may last up to 6 hours. They are signed off and are now Basic Mission Qualified. To illustrate the amount of experience 160th pilots have, there are senior pilots that have more flight hours with night vision goggles than commercial airline pilots have flight hours total!

The 160th has become such a well-trained machine that they have a guarantee for their customers. The ability to be on target, anywhere in the world, within plus or minus 30 seconds of the desired time!

Special Birds for Special Ops

The 160th SOAR operates a group of highly modified aircraft in their missions:

MH-6M & AH-6M: “Little Bird”: The Special Operations version of the Vietnam era OH-6 Light Observation Helicopter, aka “Loach” or “Flying Egg.”

The MH-6M is the utility version, and the AH-6M is the attack version. They’re equipped with FLIR (thermal imaging), of course, for the frequent night missions of the 160th.  The aircraft has two crewmembers and can be seen with up to six operators or “Trunk Monkeys” sitting outside the aircraft on bench seats. As those operators are usually Green Berets, CIA, SEALs, or Delta Force (D-Boys), I apologize in advance for any offense taken! The armament varies as needed for the mission. The Little Bird can be equipped with the 30mm chain gun; or 2 .50 Cal GAU-19 machine guns; or 2 Dillon M134 Miniguns; or 2 rocket pods; or 2 Hellfire AGM-88 missiles; or 2 Air to Air Stinger missiles!

MH-60K: This special edition of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter is a highly modified UH-60 utility helicopter equipped with aerial refueling capability, as well as and advanced suite of survivability equipment.

MH-60L Direct Action Penetrator (DAP): The DAP is essentially a gunship version of the Black Hawk. It’s been modified to mount a variety of offensive weapons systems and is capable of conducting direct action missions as an attack helicopter or reconfiguring for troop assault operations.

MH-47E/G: The MH-47E/G Chinook is a heavy assault helicopter used for a variety of operations, such as insertion and extraction of troops, assault operations, resupply, and search and rescue. The Chinook has aerial refueling capability, as well as FLIR, advanced avionics, rescue hoist, fast rope system, a multi-mode radar, as well as 2 Dillon Aero M-134 miniguns!

Drones: The Night Stalkers are also in the UAV business. They operate a Little Bird MH-6X drone as well as an MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone which is an updated version of the MQ-1 Predator Drone.

Disclaimer: Having worked for a defense contractor in a previous life, some of the statistics/configurations listed for these aircraft are highly likely to be incorrect! Secret Squirrel Stuff, don’t you know!

The Missions

The Night Stalkers have been running and gunning for almost 40 years now. They have experienced victory, as well as tragedy during combat missions as well as training.  Many men have paid the ultimate price for love of country. Here are some examples of the Night Stalkers work:

Operation Gothic Serpent

On October 4, 1993, the Night Stalkers saw action in the Battle of Mogadishu.  Operation Gothic Serpent was an operation with the primary mission of capturing Somali Warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The mission would become the subject of the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”

In an 18-hour battle, U.S. forces comprised of Army Rangers, Delta Force, Navy SEALs, USAF Pararescue Jumpers, and Combat Control Team members would battle Somali forces to rescue crews of two Black Hawk helicopters, Super Six One and Super Six Four, that had been shot down. In the end, 19 U.S. Service members were killed and 73 wounded. Currently, only two members of that Task Force are still serving on active duty.

Operation Neptune Spear

The raid to kill Usama bin Laden was launched from Afghanistan on May 1st, 2011. The 160thdeployed five helicopters to the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A total of 79 operators belonging to Seal Team 6 - Red squadron, as well as personnel from the CIA, and a Belgian Malinois named “Cairo.” During the operation, one Stealth Model MH-60L/M Black Hawk experienced a hazardous airflow situation due to high air temperatures, as well as the compound walls. The Black Hawk suffered damage to the tail rotor and began to spin. The Night Stalker pilot pushed the aircraft nose down before it rolled over and made a “soft” crash, landing in the courtyard with no casualties! Operators in the second Black Hawk touched down outside of the compound and made their way into the main building, by breaching doors and walls.

Once inside, they made their way to bin Laden, killing anyone who got in the way. There are several versions of what happened when they reached bin Laden, but in the end, bin Laden was killed! Since one of the Black Hawks was now inoperable, the operators packed it full of explosives and destroyed it to keep stealth technology out of enemy hands. One of the Chinooks staged nearby was launched to extract the rest of the team and the body of Usama bin Laden.

These are just a few Night Stalker missions we know about!  Imagine what they’ve done that we don’t know about!

The Night Stalkers are a very busy unit. On Oct 2, 2020, General Richard D. Clarke, Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, presented the 160th - 3rd battalion with four distinguished flying crosses with combat device, three Air Medals with valor and seven Air Medals with combat device. The medals stem from two separate multi-day missions. One being the extraction of a terrorist leader from the battlefield while under heavy fire, and the second being lifting casualties out of a battle zone in Afghanistan that required the crew to land about 75 yards from an enemy strong point!

Sleep well, Gunpowder readers. The Night Stalkers are out and about, taking care of business!  Think about them every time you hear a helicopter fly by!

That’s all for now folks!  Please keep sending in your questions, tips, and article Ideas. And as always – “Let’s be careful out there.”

Friedrich Seiltgen is a retired Master Police Officer with 20 years of service with the Orlando Police Department.  He conducts training in Lone Wolf Terrorism, Firearms, First Aid, Active Shooter Response, and Law Enforcement Vehicle Operations in Florida. His writing has appeared in The Counter Terrorist Magazine, Homeland Security Today and The Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International. Contact him at polizei22@msn.com.

Photo Credit: By U.S. Air Force - http://www.afsoc.af.mil/photos/mediagallery.asp?, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32069828

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